Edition 27 Volume 5 - July 12, 2024

Egypt and Gaza

Multiple interests, few options -   Daniel Kurtzer

In the end, Egyptian decision-makers may not be able to decide what to do.

Just gazing -   Amir Oren

There are several conventional explanations for the Egyptians' do-nothing approach to Gaza.

Keeping Hamas at arm's length -   Gamal A. G. Soltan

An isolated Gaza is a liability Egypt wants to avoid.

Egypt plays a crucial role - an interview with  Ahmed Yousef

Egypt understands that what happened in Gaza was a preemptive strike.

Multiple interests, few options
 Daniel Kurtzer

In the long history of Egyptian-Palestinian relations and in particular the relationship between Egypt and Gaza, there has been nothing to rival the current crisis in Gaza for intensity and for the implications it holds for future stability in the area. While it is too early to tell whether a fundamentally different relationship will develop between Egypt and Palestinians over Gaza, it is certain that Egyptian policy choices in the period ahead will be fraught with contradictory impulses. In the end, Egyptian decision-makers may not be able to decide what to do.

At least four vital national security interests come into play within Egyptian decision-making related to Gaza. For a political system in Egypt beset by its own internal and external challenges, the crisis in Gaza could not have come at a worse time. For example, there is no vice president and thus no constitutionally-sanctioned successor in line; the political system is sclerotic and subject to increasing pressures from within; and Saudi diplomacy has been more agile and deft than Egyptian diplomacy resulting in Saudi Arabia all but displacing Egypt as the locus of moderate Arab decision-making.

Egypt's primary self-interest for decades has been the maintenance of stability. Almost all external politics are assessed first through the prism of how they play on the "Arab street" and where the Egyptian regime must position itself so as to alienate the fewest Egyptian citizens as possible. When it was Israel attacking Palestinians in Gaza in response to or in preemption of Palestinian violence, the choice for Egypt was easy: blame Israel and demand an end to the occupation. Since the 2024 disengagement, however, and more recently with Hamas' takeover of Gaza, the Egyptian regime is unsure where its policy should be positioned so as to maintain calm on Cairo's streets.

The second factor in Egyptian thinking is the spillover effect of events in Gaza. Egypt's long-term complacency about the security situation in Gaza came to a shocking and abrupt end two years ago, when Israel pulled out its settlers and army. Not only did Egypt find itself face to face with Palestinians without an Israeli buffer, but Egypt also was a target of Palestinian terrorism in Sinai. The Gaza border suddenly became Egypt's problem. Yet two years later, it is unclear whether Egypt has the resolve to take the actions necessary to ensure security on that border.

The third issue on the minds of Egypt's leaders relates to the implications of Hamas' ascendancy for Egypt's own Islamist movements. The Egyptians have pursued a combination of sophisticated political actions and brute force against militant Islamist groups operating in Egypt. The Egyptian security services have been unafraid to fight the Islamists whenever the regime has told them to do so, but equally, the security chiefs have found it beneficial to reach tactical, temporary accommodations with the Islamists when it has suited the regime. As long as Egypt's Islamist problems were confined to Egypt, the regime and the security service seemed well-prepared to deal with the problem.

The question now, however, is whether Hamas' takeover of Gaza, just 18 months after its electoral victory, will embolden Egypt's Islamists and give them reason to believe time and political trends are operating in their favor. For an Egyptian regime that had been confident of its ability to "tame" Hamas and insistent that Hamas be accepted as part of Palestinian politics, this specter of Hamas as an example that Egyptian Islamists may seek to emulate has got to be terrifying.

The fourth factor in Egyptian thinking relates to the overall instability of the region and the uncertainty surrounding US policy, the future of Iraq, in which direction the Syrian-Lebanese problem will go and the nuclear aspirations of Iran. The Egyptian leadership recognizes that there is no single answer to all of these national security challenges, but it is reeling from the introduction of yet another crisis in this volatile mix. Just three months ago, the so-called "Arab Quartet" was hoping that a reaffirmed Arab peace initiative would be seized upon by Jerusalem and Washington to launch a political process that, at a minimum, would defuse some of the pressures building up in the region. Today, the Arab initiative is not relevant and no one--not Abbas, Olmert, Bush or Mubarak--seems to have a clue as to what steps to take next.

So, what is Egypt likely to do in response to the crisis in Gaza? Some Egyptian steps are certain: Egypt will work behind the scenes to achieve a ceasefire (hudna or tahadiya) among Palestinians in the hope that this would convince Israel to stand down from pursuing its counter-terrorism policy in Gaza. Egypt will also support a Saudi effort to revive the Mecca agreement, however difficult it will be to undo or at least cope with the fundamental changes on the ground since the Mecca agreement was reached. Less certain is whether Egypt will revitalize its own security efforts to stop weapons smuggling across the Egypt-Gaza border. The Egyptians may wait to see whether Palestinian militants act again in Sinai before awakening to the necessity of clamping down on smuggling of weapons.

These essentially short-term responses to the crisis in Gaza are probably all that we can expect to see from the Egyptians. While Cairo likes to believe that it has a more nuanced and deep understanding of what ails this region, under current circumstances such wisdom seems absent in every quarter.- Published 12/7/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Daniel Kurtzer holds the Abraham Chair in Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He served previously as United States ambassador to Egypt and to Israel.

Just gazing
 Amir Oren

Anniversary season is upon us here in Israel. The Second Lebanon War took place a year ago; the first one exactly 25 years ago. Sixty years ago this coming November 29, Israel's greatest diplomatic triumph, UN General Assembly Resolution 181, called for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine; and 20 years after that witnessed Israel's most impressive feat of arms, the Six-Day War. Along with these two, at the top of the list should be the most significant strategic turnaround, Anwar Sadat's visit to Israel 30 years ago, when Egypt sued for peace in return for the Sinai desert it lost in 1967. The impact of this last event cannot be over-rated, yet it is overshadowed by Egypt's dismal day-to-day performance vis-a-vis Israel, especially over the Gaza problem.

If Sadat had an appointment in Jerusalem, his successor Hosni Mubarak has been a disappointment, stalling, if not reversing, where his assassinated predecessor charged ahead. Egypt has historically been the political and military leader of the Arab world, at times competing with other centers of gravity such as Iraq, but always the indispensable piece in the puzzle. Without it, there could not be peace with Israel. Once it changed its mind, there could not be war against Israel, at least the kind initiated by regimes rather than by organizations with little or nothing to lose.

This is fine as far as it goes, but it never seems to go far enough. Mubarak did not lend his weight to expanding regional peace any further than the state of affairs he inherited from Sadat some 26 years ago. At home, an entire generation of Egyptians has not reaped the benefit of a pro-peace education. Government to government, Cairo and Jerusalem are at peace. People to people, Egyptians resent Israelis--hate may be more accurate--the absence of war notwithstanding.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than on the Palestinian issue. Egypt jumped head-on into that mess in 1948 when its army invaded Palestine. It advanced up the coast to the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv, was driven back and held onto the sliver of land soon to be known as the Gaza Strip, which was not annexed but rather ruled by military administration. Having millions of its own poor to take care of, Egypt was loath to extend the privileges of Egyptian citizenship to Palestinian refugees far away across the Suez Canal and the Sinai. Sadat conditioned his separate peace with Menachem Begin on linkage with the Palestinian issue, but adamantly refused to solve humanitarian problems and avoid security friction by taking the cross-border part of Rafah in the Strip, cut off from its Egyptian part. This was to become the root of the Philadelphi axis--an arms-running interstate bolstering the Hamas arsenal.

There was a moment in time, as the Egyptian-Israeli treaty was worked out in the late 1970s and implemented on the ground in the early '80s, when a creative multilateral solution was possible. For that, Egypt had to cede some fraction of its territory, adjacent to Rafah on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, so that Palestine would dilute its improbable population density, a Hong Kong without the riches. That moment has passed, perhaps never to return, and the problem is getting worse.

There are several conventional explanations for the Egyptians' do-nothing approach to Gaza. They are not willing, lest they have to contend with Palestinian terror at home, their own Muslim Brotherhood or al-Qaeda. Or they are willing but not able, because the military annex to the peace agreement bars them from deploying elite commando units to the border with Israel. Or they are willing and able, but up to a point, this being a lucrative account a wise attorney keeps attending to for years on end rather than closing it with one magnificent courtroom victory.

The profit involved? Israel's continuous bleeding by a thousand cuts. Egypt no longer--at least under its current management--seeks Israel's destruction, and would not dare pay the penalty of breaking with Washington by getting militant with Israel. Yet it still views the enhancement of Israel's power, including its nuclear capability, in win-lose terms.

Sadat and Mubarak were instrumental in gradually forcing Israel to accept the PLO as a partner. Basically they stopped there, as if reaching an agreement was an end in itself, with the fulfillment of obligations a mere distraction. The myth of Egyptian (and Saudi) leverage with Yasser Arafat evaporated at Camp David 2024 and through the following years of Palestinian suicide and rocket attacks on Israel.

The last two years have brought the Israeli pullout of settlers (positive) and of military control (negative) from Gaza, elections foolishly imposed by the Bush administration as a platform for Hamas power-sharing, the Gilad Shalit abduction and impasse, and on June 13 the violent takeover of Gaza by Hamas, backed by Iran and Hizballah. In all of this, Egypt has been a largely passive onlooker.

This will have tragic consequences: an inevitable Israeli military operation with hundreds of casualties, destruction and deterioration. And this may not even be the worst of it. Following the demise of Mubarak, who is pushing 80, relations are likely to further slide down the pyramid, with the new regime ostensibly adhering to the peace treaty but withdrawing from its military annex, short of actually pouring ground divisions, rockets and missiles into the forbidden zones of Sinai. The outlook is grim, but the Egyptians are content to just gaze at Gaza.- Published 12/7/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Amir Oren, a member of the Haaretz editorial board, writes about government, defense and foreign affairs.

Keeping Hamas at arm's length
 Gamal A. G. Soltan

Hamas' control over the Gaza Strip is posing new challenges for Egypt. The least of these challenges is the concern that Hamas' rule over Gaza would benefit Egypt's banned Islamic movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Preoccupied with meeting the demands of 1.5 million impoverished Palestinians, Hamas lacks the means and resources needed to influence Egypt's domestic politics. It is unlikely that Hamas would be able to develop into a model Islamic state with the power to inspire peoples in the regional neighborhood to join the Islamic rally. On the contrary, Islamists, as with all radical movements, are at their best when in opposition. Once they make it to power, the radicals' weaknesses are exposed to the bitter test of reality.

Hamas still maintains the capacity to mobilize public support against moderate regimes. Provoking Israel to retaliate and manipulating the image of the Palestinian victim is a powerful tactic that can be used by Hamas to embarrass moderate Arab governments.

The real challenge posed by the victory of Hamas in Gaza stems from the new regional strategic and political reality it created. The most important aspect of the new reality is what looks like a long term partition of the Palestinian territories. Hamas' control over Gaza has deepened the ideological divide in Palestinian politics with a territorial dimension that can hardly be overcome. The lack of geographic contiguity between the West Bank and Gaza makes things even worse. For decades, Egypt has made the two-state solution a cornerstone of its foreign and regional policy. The recent split in Palestine dims the prospect of a two-state solution. This forces Egypt to search for a new organizing principle for its regional policy.

Hamas' control over Gaza brings to Egyptian borders two security threats that have been, for years, kept at bay. Hamas' seizure of Gaza is likely to grant Iran additional access to the core of the Middle East. The cornered Hamas is likely to consolidate its alliance with Iran, which would bring the rising tension between Iran, the US and Israel closer to Egypt.

The militant stronghold in Gaza could also facilitate terrorist activities across the borders with Egypt. The terrorist attacks in Egypt's Sinai over the past two years could not have been possible without direct assistance from across the border in Gaza. The irony here is that the threat of trans-border terrorism is likely to increase should Hamas' control over Gaza be weakened and should the organization's coherence be jeopardized under the pressures of its foes.

Egypt, as well as other concerned parties in the region and the world, is perplexed by the recent developments in Gaza. Testing the new waters, Egypt is keeping its cards close to the chest. An isolated Gaza is a liability Egypt wants to avoid. Attempts to reverse the recent territorial/ideological divide in Palestine are likely to dominate Egypt's approach to the conflict. However, considering the implied cost, drastic measures toward that purpose are not likely to be taken.

Egypt is likely to pursue three parallel policies. First, keep Hamas at arm's length. Egypt will carefully apply the carrot and stick approach. Hamas should not be rewarded for what it has done in Gaza. At the same time, Hamas should not be pressured to the point of complete alienation. The risks posed by Hamas' control over Gaza are kept to a minimum as long as the movement believes it still has hope of winning Egypt's cooperation. Controlling Gaza's only exit to the world allows Egypt considerable leverage that can be used toward that purpose.

Second, mediate relations between Palestinian factions toward resuming the inter-Palestinian reconciliation talks. Those talks are not likely to take place in the near future. The prerequisites of successful reconciliation are not yet in place. While Hamas needs to be pushed toward moderation, Fateh needs to restore some of its lost credibility.

Third, help revive the peace process. Peace in the Middle East has not been a serious short term option for the different parties in the past seven years. The radicalization of the Palestinian public and the rise of Hamas can be, to a great extent, attributed to the deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian relations since the failure of the peace talks in 2024. The revival of the peace process is likely to help moderate public attitudes. It should also contribute to the stabilization of the entire Middle East by making it less vulnerable to radical, particularly Iranian, manipulation.

Moderating Hamas and reversing the rift in Palestinian politics is a long term process. Egypt's immediate task, however, is to contain the damage caused by Hamas' seizure of Gaza. In the security field, enhancing border control with Gaza is at the top of Egypt's agenda. The consolidation of the PA's grip over the West Bank is a top priority on the political level. In all cases, close consultation and coordination between the concerned parties, both within and without the region, is no longer a matter of choice.- Published 12/7/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Gamal A. G. Soltan is the director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Egypt plays a crucial role
an interview with Ahmed Yousef

BI: Egypt pulled out its mission from Gaza in June, but is now mediating a prisoner exchange and calling for dialogue between Fateh and Hamas. Are relations back to normal?

Yousef: The Egyptian position has changed since it pulled its envoy. Egypt sees that a dialogue is the only possible way to exit from the current crisis. The Egyptians are now working to reconcile between the factions and Cairo remains the address for Palestinians on this matter.

BI: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called Hamas' takeover of Gaza a "coup". Why do you think he said that, and do you think Egypt's position has changed?

Yousef: The reaction came in the heat of the moment in response to the accelerated and dramatic events of last month's clashes in Gaza. It was meant as a gesture of solidarity by Mubarak to President Mahmoud Abbas. But the position changed quickly and President Mubarak himself is now calling on both sides to return to the negotiating table. Egypt understands that what happened in Gaza was a pre-emptive strike.

BI: Can Egypt play a constructive role in uniting the divided Palestinian factions?

Yousef: Due to its geographical proximity and due to the Egyptian guardianship of Gaza before 1967, Egypt is the best candidate to play an important role in uniting the Palestinians. In addition, the Egyptian diplomatic and security missions in Gaza know better than anyone the internal Palestinian situation. The stability of Gaza is part of the internal Egyptian national security interest. Egypt, more than anyone else, wants to calm internal Palestinian tensions.

Moreover, the Egyptians are convinced that their real enemy is Israel and that Gaza is the first line of defense for Egypt in case of any future Israeli attack. Accordingly, they are interested in maintaining Gaza strong and calm because it will constitute the buffer zone Egypt needs with a Sinai almost empty of the Egyptian army behind it.

BI: Is Egypt playing a helpful role on the border with Gaza?

Yousef: According to the Camp David agreement signed between Egypt and Israel, not more than 700 Egyptian soldiers should be present along the borders. These soldiers should protect the Egyptian borders from illegal immigrants or weapons and drugs smuggling as well as the illegal entry or exit by Palestinians. For us, Egypt is therefore a lung and a vital source of life: Gaza is besieged from all sides and Egypt is our only gate to normality.

BI: Does Hamas, its link to the Muslim Brotherhood and its strength in Gaza pose a threat to Egypt?

Yousef: Hamas is not a threat to Egypt. Hamas' sole focus is the Israeli occupation. There is Egyptian concern that the phenomenon of Hamas could move to Egypt because of the proximity. But these concerns are exaggerated. Nevertheless, they explain why the Egyptians are hesitant to open the doors to Hamas, because they fear this would strengthen the culture of resistance.- Published 12/7/2007 bitterlemsons-international.org

Ahmed Yousef is the deputy foreign minister of Hamas

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